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Some people can't seem to stomach the thought of sitting down and dining on a plate of tripe. Others, especially those of certain ethnic groups, see tripe almost as comfort food and go out of their way to enjoy it. No matter where you fall on the issue, supping on a dish made primarily of cow stomach is not like going to McDonald's or Wendy's for a burger.
Merriam-Webster's online dictionary gives two meanings to the word, one of which helps explain the somewhat lowly stature of this exotic offal, rarely found on southwestern Pennsylvania restaurant menus. The first definition calls it stomach tissue of a ruminant (such as an ox) used as a food. The other meaning defines it as something poor, worthless or offensive, qualities many tripe aficionados would disagree with.
Although tripe can be gotten from sheep, goat or even pig, the most common source is the cow, of which only the first three of the four stomachs are used. Of these, the reticulum or honeycomb tripe is the most preferred.
Before you try your hand at turning tripe into a culinary treat in your own kitchen, you might like to know that the meat has a dense, chewy texture, much like sauteed or stewed calamari, but is less rubbery. Taste-wise, tripe is somewhat neutral but has a very subtle flavor of, perhaps, liver. It also tends to pick up the flavors of accompanying broths and sauces.
Locally, you can purchase tripe fresh at some Giant Eagles and other supermarkets, and frozen in 10-pound cartons at Jo-Mar Provisions, 42 18th St., in the Strip District. President Ken Zvirman said Jo-Mar sells about 100 pounds a week in cold-weather months and that the sales volume drops to around 50 pounds a week in the summer.
"Currently we sell the honeycomb-style of tripe at $1.99 a pound," he said. "After it defrosts, it has a distinct odor that dissipates rather quickly when it's cooking. Most of our clientele seem to turn it into Italian-style dishes."
Strip District Meats at 2123 Penn Ave. also sells honeycomb tripe in the same type of 10-pound boxes and pricing. Owner Ray Turkas, who's been in the meat business for the past 37 years, said that there are very few local packing houses these days, so it's usually sold frozen.
"Tripe is an item that's not consumed in high volume like it was in the old days," he said. "Much of it is now exported overseas. However, people can do all kinds of things with tripe, including frying it. My mother makes it in a light tomato sauce, and it's delicious.
"Several ethnic groups prepare it as part of their culinary heritage, but the younger generations don't seem to want to carry on the tradition, and the recipes go to the grave with the old-timers."
-- Dave Zuchowski
In the United States, tripe is sold processed by a butcher or packing house, which does most of the prep work of cleaning, trimming off the fat and unwanted tissue and bleaching and cooking the remainder.
Despite its somewhat off-putting characteristics, tripe is eaten in most countries. Andouille, the staple sausage of Cajun cooking, is often made from tripe. This mild-tasting meat product also finds its way into soup in countries as far-flung as Mexico, where it's called menudo, India (chakna), Portugal (dobrada), Poland (flaczki) and the Philippines (paklay).
Tripe is also sometimes used as an ingredient in pho, the national dish of Vietnam. In Turkey, the meat is highly regarded as a remedy for an evening of alcohol overindulgence and is consumed in a soup called iskembe corbasi, made with garlic, lemon and spices.
In China and France, countries considered by many to be at the top of the culinary pyramid, tripe finds its way into fuqi feipian, a spicy Chinese cold-cut concoction, and in tripes a la mode Caen, perhaps the ultimate tripe gastronomic masterpiece.
The latter is named for Caen, a city in Normandy, where three sections of a cow's stomach are put into a kettle along with a calves' foot or two, beef fat, assorted vegetables, herbs and spices, white wine, apple cider and Calvados.
In southwestern Pennsylvania, tripe lovers have a limited number of restaurants that serve this often overlooked and underappreciated specialty.
The Italian Club in Muse, Washington County, has been serving tripe for more than 50 years. Club president Norman del Vecchio, who's been an officer for 40-plus years, remembers dishing out 30 to 40 pounds of tripe and 50 pounds of spaghetti in the early years.
That figure has jumped to 150 to 180 pounds of tripe and 200 pounds of spaghetti served at the club's monthly dinners, which are $5, including bread and butter.
Dinners are held the third Sunday of each month from 2 to 6 p.m. except during June through August, so Sunday's is the last one for this season.
The tripe comes frozen in 10-pound packages from Albert's Packing in Taylorstown. The day before the dinner, member George McDonald comes in at 5 a.m. and cooks the tripe in 12-gallon pots.
Up to nine other members start the job of cutting the cooked tripe into bite-size slices, then top it with homemade marinara sauce, prepared by the ladies auxiliary. The flavors are then left to merge and mature overnight.
Canonsburg's Robert Boyd, who grew up in the Little Italy section of Muse and ate tripe as a boy, said, "I've been coming here for the tripe since the early '60s when they first started making it. It's really very good."
Darlene Whitfield of Muse said she may have a German background but is an Italian wannabe at heart, and helps make the sauce from scratch. "When I was a little girl growing up in town, I knew when it was spaghetti and tripe day by the aroma in the air."
Although tripe is often used in Asian and Mexican cuisine, numerous phone calls to area restaurants failed to turn up one that includes it on the menu.
However, Los Chilados, a Mexican restaurant that opened May 3 in Canonsburg, plans to offer menudo (tripe soup) as a weekly special in the colder months.
- Where: Muse Italian Club on Muse-Bishop Road, off Route 50 in Cecil or Route 980 near Canonsburg
- Hours: 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday. This is the last of the club's dinners on the third Sunday of the month until September
- Cost: $5
- Phone: 724-745-9878
Two restaurants that do regularly serve tripe are Italian.
In Coraopolis, LoBello's Fifth Avenue Spaghetti House has had tripe on the menu since 1944. That's the year owner Rose LoBello started working there at age 14.
"The tripe comes in frozen, and I wash it before I cook it, 25 to 30 pounds at a time," she said. "It's an all-day job."
The recipe has been handed down through 100 years of family cooking and includes a light tomato sauce, mushrooms and Italian peppers. Customers who order it are told the preparation will take 25 minutes.
"I make the best tripe," she said. "That's what my customers tell me. Even people who've never tried it before usually love it."
She serves tripe as an entree with bread, butter and salad for $19.95.
In Monongahela, Lenzi's Restaurant has been in business 68 years, since Pete Lenzi first opened it as a hamburger and hot dog place.
Grandson John "Tim" Timko, who now runs the operation, said tripe was added to the menu in 1962 when the establishment went to an Italian family-style menu.
Like LoBello's tripe recipe, the one at Lenzi's has been passed down through generations of the family -- four to be exact. Mr. Timko cleans, trims and cuts the tripe into small pieces and boils it for a few hours. He then bakes it in the oven with sauce for another two to four hours, and serves it with salad and bread for $12.95.
The restaurant goes through a good bit of it every day because of its location near Mon Valley Hospital, which employs many Asian and South American doctors who ate it in their native countries.
"It's almost like comfort food to them," said Mr. Timko.
"Not many places serve it anymore. I always like to tell people you're not going to go to Denny's and Eat'n Park and find it on a menu."
Dave Zuchowski is a freelance writer. He's eaten tripe not only in Muse (twice), but also in Ensenada, Mexico, and dreams of tasting tripes a la mode Caen in Normandy with a glass of Calvados. First Published May 15, 2008 4:00 AM